ATLANTA — There is an inherent disrespect in the narrative that Kentucky basketball has the easiest potential path to the Final Four of any team left in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, even if it’s true that said path also would be the easiest, seed-wise, ever for a No. 5 seed making the national semifinals.
The assumption, of course, is that the Wildcats will roll past No. 9 seed Kansas State in the Sweet 16 here on Thursday night and then do the same in the Elite Eight against the winner of No. 7 seed Nevada vs. No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago. But … what about the living, breathing basketball team standing in the way of that hypothetical?
“They still gotta lace their shoes up and see us,” said sophomore KSU forward Xavier Sneed. “We’re not going to lay down. We’re going to come out there and give those guys a fight — and that’s what it’s going to have to be.”
The Wildcats from Manhattan, Kan., are accustomed to being overlooked. They were picked eighth in the Big 12 and finished fourth. They were a No. 9 seed widely expected to be bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Creighton, and almost certainly in the second round against No. 1 overall seed Virginia.
But Kansas State (24-11) benefited from an early upset when No. 16 seed UMBC made history against the Cavaliers. The Wildcats then survived an ugly second-round game against the ultimate Cinderella to get here.
“We’ve been doubted all year,” junior guard Kamau Stokes said. “And now it’s at the point where we’ve proven we can play with anybody. Now we’ve just gotta prove it once more.”
KSU has eight wins against KenPom top-50 teams this season, after all. So the assumption that Kentucky will waltz past those other Wildcats on a preordained path to San Antonio?
“A lot of people feel that, but we definitely don’t feel that way,” freshman guard Mike McGuirl said. “And I’m sure those other two teams [Nevada and Loyola] don’t feel that way, either. It’s motivation — to move forward, to compete our hardest, to come away with that win. That was our motivation all year. Now we’re just going to keep using stuff like that as motivation.”